When ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made their way onto a hot and sunny alkali flat just west of the Interstate 15 freeway between Barstow and Las Vegas in late 2010, they were opening an era of giantism in solar electricity.
They and bunches of utility executives went to a site near the Mojave Desert’s Ivanpah dry lake to mark what they called a landmark advance in energy, the start of work on a huge solar farm now visible as a glassy sea of deep blue to travelers just southwest of the California-Nevada state line.
Ivanpah, opened in 2013, will use up to 12,000 acres of federal land for 30 years or more. It is the second-largest of half a dozen solar thermal energy projects that have brought more than 1,000 construction jobs to the previously depressed desert area. It is also having trouble repaying its federal loans.
As a sideline, these very large projects have also produced a spate of power line construction, an investment that will soon show up in the rates of utilities like Southern California Edison Co. and Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
Partly because of the big solar thermal projects, the price of electricity, as ads for rooftop solar panels constantly remind us, will likely soon start climbing steeply for consumers, perhaps as much as 50 percent by the year 2030.
It didn’t have to happen that way, and future solar development in California may not.
Photovoltaic is the preferred alternative to the large solar thermal power farms whose intense heat is reflected to high towers where it turns water to steam. By contrast, photovoltaic development can be concentrated on urban rooftops and above parking lots where the power won’t have to be shipped hundreds of miles on expensive new transmission lines before it is ultimately used.
Small solar also doesn’t impinge on endangered species and treasured Native American religious and historic sites. Nor does it require billions of dollars in federal tax credits or loans to the large corporations that build solar thermal.
That’s one reason the city of Los Angeles, not usually thought of as an environmental pioneer, is now pushing for more energy independence through its Department of Water & Power, in effect the fourth-largest power company in the state.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti last year declared a goal of building 1,200 megawatts of solar electric capacity above his city’s roofs, parking lots and other structures within six years – in time to meet a state mandate that about one-third of all California power come from renewable sources by then. That would be almost one-fifth of L.A.’s usual peak summer consumption of about 6,100 megawatts.
Any cost to other consumers created by solar users leaving the grid will be far lower than the price of buying solar thermal power and shipping it many miles across deserts and mountains to the city. Plus, photovoltaic power promises to create at least as many jobs as solar thermal, without forcing workers to remote locations.
Essentially, the same amounts of energy can be produced from photovoltaic panels as from thermal farms, at less than 55 percent the cost.
That led San Diego engineer William Powers to suggest in the journal Natural Gas and Electricity that solar thermal energy is now outmoded – even before most of the big California solar farms come online, noting that the technology is not even being pursued in other advanced countries like Japan and Germany, both of which have large-scale solar photovoltaic projects under way.
This all makes it a mystery why the state Public Utilities Commission has spent the last few years steadily promoting the big thermal farms and doing little to encourage rooftop solar and the like.
The most obvious explanation is that the PUC, as usual, seeks to generate steady profits for big utilities, whose income drops when photovoltaic panels take large numbers of their customers off the grid.
This essentially means that government is forcing consumers to subsidize both utilities and large solar developers. Which suggests that when all the big solar projects now being built are allowed to come online, that ought to be end for them in California.